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Monday 27 June 2016

What We Don't Learn

What do you remember from school that you don't really use today?

A lot of you will reach for mathematics. Trigonometry, pi to a certain value, so on. Some people will talk about language, verbs and nouns. Some will claim science as the burden. A bit of this, a bit of that.

What about the things in school that you weren't taught?

I vaguely touched upon this last May in this blog right here, but I think that - in the wake of the referendum that has rocked the country - it deserves revisiting.

Let us ponder, for a moment, some wisdom from the late great George Carlin:

"You might have noticed that I never complain about politicians. I leave that to others. And there's no shortage of volunteers; everyone complains about politicians. Everyone says they suck. But where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky; they don't pass through a membrane from a separate reality. They come from American homes, American families, American schools, American churches, and American businesses. And they're elected by American voters. This is what our system produces, folks. This is the best we can do. Let's face it, we have very little to work with. Garbage in, garbage out."

Let's think about that for a moment.

Democracy is built on the people of a nation being involved in the decision-making process of that nation. It does not require, by definition, those decisions to be informed - but let's consider that for a moment.

Stepping out of the standpoints of various political parties - it is literally better, for the entire nation (if not the entire world), if those decisions ARE informed. A country's effectiveness and capacity to do right by its citizens depends on its capacity to make good decisions. Thus, it's in the interest of a nation to ensure those citizens can make those decisions well.

How to do that? Well, in order to make decisions, people need to understand the consequences of those decisions. A basic understanding of government, of society, of economics. Expertise is not necessary - but then the same can be said for mathematics, and very few people leave school without an expected basic level of knowledge.

Yeah, you hated learning trigonometry, but you know how many £2 loaves of bread you can get for a tenner.

How many of us left school in the knowledge of what national debt is, how taxes are collected and spent, or what the difference is between left-wing and right-wing? How many people do you know that don't really understand communism, socialism, capitalism, neoliberalism (and how different it is to liberalism), fascism?

BoyInABand did a song about this:

Trigonometry is, admittedly, more important to me than most people - I like maths - but if I had to choose between learning trig and learning LITERALLY how this country is run, I am going to pick the latter.

Kids aren't allowed to vote. Why? Because they don't understand the enormity of what they are doing, they don't understand what is going on, they don't know how the world works yet. They don't know how to make good decisions about the future of this country.

But...what about if you're an adult and you have no clue?

Picture this - two individuals. A seventeen year old that has been reading about politics and economics since they were twelve, who has taken an interest in it at a local level as well as a global one, who has demonstrated his knowledge in talks and debates - and a forty year old who has literally only ever seen one room in their entire lives, who knows nothing of the outside world and doesn't care to.

If the forty year old can convince people that he's sane - hell, who is to say he ISN'T sane? - then he gets a vote. He knows literally nothing but he gets a vote based purely on how long he's been on this earth.

The seventeen year old doesn't get shit.

To look at what happened in the Referendum of 23rd June, a great many people expressed significant confusion or lack of knowledge on the run-up to the vote. Some expressed the same on the same day. Many continued to express confusion and lack of knowledge AFTER they had already cast their vote, not having realised quite what they had voted for or what any of it meant, so they went with their gut instinct.

Nobody needs to be told what propaganda can do. It has turned entire nations into charicatures, legitimised slaughter without precedent, started wars and pogroms - the list goes on.

Propaganda isn't always posters on walls that tell you to hate. Sometimes it is more subtle. It comes in the form of agendas being described as truths. It comes in the form of identifying pre-existing prejudices and inflaming them, earning sympathy. See, we hate the same thing. We are on the same side.

I daresay that one reason that there's no education of politics and civics in schools is because, when the party that forms the government suggests such a thing, the other shoots it down - because they are afraid that Party A will sway the education toward their agendas. And when Party B come into power, the same happens. I think this is one limiting factor, perhaps the main one.

Of course there is also George Carlin's perennial thought that the government wants to keep us dumb. That the entire process is an exercise designed to give us enough hands on reins to make us think we know where the horse is going, without any capability of guiding it, no knowledge of how to feed or shoe it, and not even necessarily knowing it is a horse.

I don't subscribe to this particular theory. Mostly because I don't believe in conspiracy theories. There's easier ways to keep people dumb than generally bumbling around in a bureaucracy. Besides, it isn't as if the information isn't out there. It really is. You just need to actually go looking for it, and that's hard to do if you don't vaguely know what to go looking for in the first place.

So if we accept that an enlightened society is a better society - as I previously asserted - then we have to accept that not teaching people about politics is strictly a choice dictated by partisan division. If WE can't teach them OUR lesson, then THEY can't teach them THEIR lesson.

The answer is, in this country at least, an independent entity. This entity would set the template and curriculum for political education. It would be run past the Education Secretary for approval. It would be run past the Shadow Education Secretary for approval. In the end - once a balance is struck between the two, and with the input of others (I suggest perhaps some highly regarded political and economic scholars) - the curriculum is rolled out.

It is depressing that it would take that much effort, just to allow political and civic education for our children. To think that the only way that an education in the way the world works can occur requires pandering and hand-wringing to the extant powers that be - truth be told, it makes me feel a little ill. If that is the only way? It is the only way.

We can't afford to have the democratic future of this country in the hands of people that don't understand the consequences of their votes. Who admittedly, after the fact, hold up their hands and say they didn't know. Knowing who is in who's pocket is a difficult thing and requires some study - but knowing who makes the decisions, and who stands to gain from each of them, can begin that process.

Knowing where we are taxed and how much - knowing where that tax money is spent - knowing how an economy works, and how an economy can get into debt - all of these things are things I somewhat take for granted, now. They are things that I set out to learn because not knowing was infuriating, and now the infuration takes root in knowing that I still have just as much sway over the democratic process as the theoretical man in the room.

It is my opinion, and has been my opinion for many years, that we need to be taught these lessons in schools. I value the other lessons - mathematics, sciences, english - but a knowledge of how the world works is important, too.

And if we are going to stop children from voting because they don't know - if we are going to stop those without sound mind voting because they literally cannot make an informed decision - then we need to start making sure that everyone that ISN'T one of those things IS capable of making an informed decision.

Or we're going to end up with a pound in the shitter and an economy steadily flatlining.


Wednesday 22 June 2016

Immigrant Song

This is the story of an immigrant.

He was born in Beirut, while the Lebanon was being bombarded by the Kreigsmarine. He spent his early years sleeping through the worst of it - once, one of his uncles suggested that he was either deaf or broken, as he managed to sleep through a building four doors down being shelled. As a child he spent a lot of time around the American embassy, even getting a Saturday job there, which let him see the films put on for the staff. It's here that his love affair with the staples of Western civilization began.

Throughout his teenage years he was something of a tearaway, despite being taught by rather brutal French nuns - if he misbehaved too much or spoke Arabic around them, he was forced to kneel on walnuts and recite the Lord's French. His father was dramatically older than his mother, a gap of attitude and sympathy as much as age, and died naturally of old age. At the time of his father's death, he was 12 - he became the man of the house, and left school to find gainful employment.

Throguhout the years he held down a great many jobs, a lot of them focused around driving and moving. He worked engineering in Saudi Arabia, famously a dry country, and managed to smuggle booze into the oil pipelines that he spent most of his work time constructing. As handy with a gun as he was a car, he got into several scrapes - though he always found a way to sneak off down to to Damascus once every so often to enjoy life with his friends and relatives.

Soon, though, the military air of the country became stifling. People were being herded off buses depending on their faith and were often not seen again, and tanks were parked on street corners. He left, as many other Lebanese folk did - the Lebanese Diaspora is a thing - and travelled through Europe. While his family spread to Australia and America, he settled in Italy, wherein he became a test driver and F3 driver for FIAT. He ran several successful seasons, spending time in Monaco and Le Mans, before a serious crash left him in a coma.

He didn't wake up until months later. He was still recuperating in hospital when his mother urged him to give up race driving. She made him promise, and promise he did.

Once more the man moved on. He went through France, but decided his final destination would be Australia. He just wanted to stop off to see a relative on the sleepy Isle of Wight in the south of England first - only intending on staying two weeks.

He fell in love with the place and its people; it took precious little for him to be convinced to settle. There were cultural differences of course - people in this new land didn't have guns, they drove slowly, and they wasted so much food - but that in itself had its charm. After all, not worrying that the next bus you got on would be your last was a luxury that most couldn't understand.

Knowing he'd need funds, he took as many jobs as he could hold down. He worked as a bouncer, a barman, a debt collector, a technical repairman, a delivery driver - in every job he gave his all, paid his tax and reaped his rewards. He sent money home of course, until he heard that his mother had been murdered. Another victim of the civil war.

He met a girl and settled down. They had their ups and their downs, but they worked - they both worked. They had to in Thatcher's England, especially if they were going to feed their young son. When their son was born, he was so proud, so heart-burstingly proud, that he was almost unwilling to let the doctor perform preliminary checks. He also burst into tears in relief when he found out that he didn't need to pay for his wife to give birth in this hospital, as he'd been contributing to the National Insurance.

This new life allowed him to indulge in his interests. A keen follower of Formula 1, he was also obsessed with computers - had been interested in them ever since he worked in a local arcade. He taught his young son all about them, though he never actually worked in computing. It was something he enjoyed, not something he wanted to monetise.

The long hours took their toll on the man, however. He took night shift work, because it paid well, but he didn't see his young son much at all. In the end he worked himself into two heart attacks. He was signed off work permanently, but had worked hard enough in all his time in this country that he'd earned himself several very respectable pensions.

In the end it was cancer that claimed him, in the way that cancer does. It crept up on him and stole him by inches. He left behind a great many friends and family.

I haven't told you his name because, when the word Immigrant gets thrown about as a headline or an attention-grabbing title, you aren't told names. There's no face, no history. No context.

Now. Every time someone talks about how Immigrants are a problem, or how there's too many, or that they should go home, I can't help but think of this one in particular. This one Immigrant, who once found a scorpion in BOTH his boots in the middle of the desert, who actually kept his very first tax form because he was so proud of paying them, who drank Bull's Blood wine and taught his son how to play cards.

This one Immigrant has given more to this country, this place, this economy than any one of the people who sit in their little chairs and read their Daily Mirror and complain about how the Immigrants have it so easy. This Immigrant, part of the tide determined to come here and crush your English values and way of life, delivered the shitty xenophobic newspapers you read your shitty xenophobic news stories in every week. He enjoyed spicy food but nothing was better to him than a genuine Sunday roast. He washed the car on the weekends, he went to the pub, he loved dogs and birds, and he loved telling awful jokes.

He was more of an Englishman than most Englishmen, despite being born and bred in the Lebanon, the ancestral home of the Phoenicians. Never bullshit a bullshitter, he taught his son - and he was one such bullshitter. They both were.

The world would be lesser without Farid Aridi. I know it. Everyone who ever met him knew it. He was impossible and stubborn and wise and generous and clingy and romantic and wherever he went, he smiled - until you gave him reason not to. He had a hell of a temper, but more than that, he had a hell of a way with people.

This Immigrant was my father, and unless you knew him - you don't get to talk shit about him.

Without this Immigrant I'd have never been born.

Immigrants aren't funny-coloured unwashed masses coming here to take your jobs and your benefits. They are people. Using them like tools to scare people into voting one way or another - in any country - is despicable. The only way my dad would be a threat to your community is if you all had too much money and too little skill at a poker table.

But then - precious few of us are actually originally from this stretch of land, if we go back in the mists of time...

...just think twice when you shit-talk immigrants, okay?

Tuesday 14 June 2016


On Sunday morning 49 people were gunned down for having the audacity to be in a gay club.

The media circus that followed was sickeningly familiar. Lives picked over, facts glossed over, other facts studied to an absurd degree. Bombastic statements made. Sympathies offered, sometimes by those who spend a significant amount of their political collateral in sidelining and victimising those who had been wounded or killed.

It happened because there's easy access to two things in the US: assault weapons and homophobia.

I know I'm going to get flak for that first bit, but - if you aren't in the army, you don't need an assault weapon. Talk about the dubious right to own firearms if you wish. Nobody needs an AR-15 unless they are going to war, and that should tell you something about anyone that wants to own one. I put them in the same camp as high explosives. No, you don't get the question-free right to own something that can end so many lives so easily just because you think you are entitled to it.

That second bit is the killer.

When a significant proportion of those in power at every stage of one's life think that non-hetero individuals aren't as deserving of freedom as the rest of us, an environment is created in which it is easier to believe that lie than to fight against it. In a media wherein a distinct effort is made to make LGBTQA individuals vanish, or appear inferior or comical, an atmosphere of intolerance is easy to nurture. It isn't the actions of those Westboro nutcases that really crushes the illusion of equality - it is the quiet backroom intolerance of the majority, that still makes anti-gay jokes and wonders why Pride is a thing.

This is priviledge; this is the priviledge of never having to worry if holding your loved one's hand will end up with you being berated, or beaten, or worse. This is the priviledge of not needing a Pride weekend because EVERY WEEKEND IS A HETERO PRIDE WEEKEND. This is the priviledge of knowing it is someone else that is hated by the real bigots, that you won't have to weather their hatred, that's a burden for the other guy to bear.

49 of the other guys bore that burden to their grave. Another 53 bore it to the hospital.

I have LGBTQA friends and loved ones. I care about them, and I love them, and I want them to be safe and happy. Do I love them because they aren't hetero? No. I love them because they're people, like me, and they deserve love. To think they may be gunned down by a killer with an assault weapon because they chose to go to a club where they feel safe makes me feel sick, and sad, and angry.

Sick and sad and angry. That sums up how I feel about this entire thing.

If America is unwilling to address its gun problem, then at the very least it needs to address its bigotry problem. The two of them in concert allowed this slaughter to happen, and I hate the fact that they are allowed to continue to exist.

My FRIENDS should continue to exist, you bastards. PEOPLE are more important than YOUR right to use "gay" as a synonym for "stupid" and YOUR right to carry a gun designed to kill an entire room in seconds.

Fuck any one of you that disagrees.

Sunday 12 June 2016

On Stellar Warfare

Strategy games are my jam, and the recently-released Stellaris is the jammiest of jam.

For those not in the know, it is a grand strategy space-based game by Paradox, makers of several other strategy games (Cities Skylines, Hearts Of Iron, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and Victoria to name but five). It is a halfway house between the in-depth politics of Europa Universalis and the 4x empire-building of Master of Orion; it has so many layers that it is hard to describe without comparison to other games. There is a cost to everything, and everything requires a balance.

There's a cost to war in most games, but a lot of games - Endless Space for example - start you on a war footing, with the option of peace later. Stellaris assumes neutrality - but don't think that alliances are easy. Even if both your own nation and the enemy nation agree on everything else, you still have work to do before they will trust you.

What is there to agree on, you may ask? Well, each empire has a specific ethos, built on eight traits that oppose each other. Collectivist - Individualist, Xenophobe - Xenophile, Militarist - Pacifist, Materialist - Spiritualist. Each of them are good at different things, and every empire has a different set of these (three, though you can be a fanatic and that counts as two; Fanatic Collectivist and Militarist for example).

It dictates how other empires see you, how you respond to various different phenomena and events, how you wage war, how you conduct peace. If you're a materialist then you are better at the sciences, because you ask more questions, the kind of questions that being a spiritualist would answer for you - but being spiritualists makes your populace happier (and you WANT a happy populace). Being a xenophile makes diplomacy with alien races easier, but being a xenophobe allows the enslavement of aliens that become part of your empire - and slavery is, I hate to say it, a useful tool.

That's the thing about a game like this. It introduces you to different ways of doing things, and then you realise just how hard it is to do things in the decent way that we all expect. If your nation is one that will willingly purge citizens that don't believe the same thing (and the ethics of your population CAN deviate from that of your empire, which will lead to independence movements and separatists, and in some cases actual genetic mutations), then every other nation will hate you, and that makes doing things difficult. Likewise if you allow slavery, other nations that don't will dislike you. Slaves are good at manual labour - harvesting minerals and food - but they are poor at scientific pursuits and the more advanced art of producing energy, so you NEED some free citizens or you will fall behind in scientific advancement.

If you fuck up your diplomatic options too hard, well...they say that war is simply a failure of diplomacy...but war is expensive.

You can't just declare war and then march in and start shooting people. War is done in a very World War 1 era way. You declare terms. You set out war objectives, and then when you engage in military action, you earn warscore - and you can force a surrender by earning a high enough warscore, unless your opponent concedes to some or all of your demands.

The thing is, the moment your fleet ships out, you immediately take an energy hit. It's expensive to maintain a military force. That's before a shot is even fired - and your fleet size is limited by your population. You can exceed this fleet limit but you will take a further hit to your energy and other resources.

And what happens if you win? Well, you either take the nation you just beat as a vassal state, or you claim several of its planets as yours. What do you do with them now?

You have citizens living there that probably hate you. Do you enslave them? As previously mentioned, that has a cost of its own. Do you purge them? Again, a cost. Do you just hope they don't blow up anything important? Unless you have a way of keeping them happy, damn sure they are going to start sabotaging your shit - and unhappy citizenry can go as far as an actual armed uprising, which you will need to fend off with a defensive army, which has a build cost and a maintenance cost...

You get the picture. Everything costs. Everything is expensive - either materially or socially.

One thing it does teach you, though, is that it's not about having ENOUGH resources. Usually it is about proper allocation.

See, the balance between enslaving and oppressing a population and actually keeping it integrated and happy is a fairly even one. The money spent purging and enslaving - and the associated social cost - is approximate to the money spent making people happy and the hit to efficiency that can lead to. I haven't run any maths on that, it is an approximation - but I bet if I broke out a calculator it would be fairly commensurate.

Also it bears mention that none of the particular ethos traits are associated with what kind of species you are, nor what you are good at in terms of talents scientific or physical. It is just as likely that you will find humans who are horribly racist and good at fighting as you will find lizard-people who are highly democratic and value freedom over everything else.

You know a strategy game is good when it is a teaching tool; when it changes how you think about solving certain problems, and introduces you to new ways of thinking. That is a valuable tool - something that gaming is very rarely credited with.

If you like strategy - like a strategy game that you can sink DAYS into, like Civ 5 - I would highly recommend Stellaris. If that's a little much for you, there's plenty of other games out there. All I say is this:

Keep playing. Keep learning. Keep challenging.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Why We Should Stay

On 23rd June we will vote on whether or not we should leave the European Union.

This is the source of some quite heated debate, frankly - and I am thrilled on one level that people are actually engaging in politics at all. That's a fantastic change. I asked for some quotes on my Facebook, some of which are presented below:

"either way it is the elite who win"

"In because our government wants to rewrite the human rights act, take away workers rights and dismantle the NHS."

"Out democracy over bureaucracy!!"

"To quote a Clash song...should I stay or should I go !!"

I will put my heart on my sleeve right now, for purpose of bias sweeping: I think we should stay, and this blog is in part to tell you why - but also an observation on the campaign on both sides.

I'm not going to touch the amount of waffle there is in the media. There's a hell of a lot. Nor am I going to really touch on the absolute shitstorm of somewhat inaccurate facts being thrown around as gospel both for and against - though I suspect in a couple of cases on the Stay side that is rather deliberate, such as in the case of the BBC.

Anyone who pays attention will notice that the BBC's somewhat left-centrist news has shifted to the right a hell of a lot in the past three years. Could this be because their previous head of news was forced out after some vague allegations, and replaced with a former News Corp employee? Given that they now often toe the same line as the Murdoch press, it's hard to imagine otherwise.

Pardon. I digress.

What I'm going to touch on is those apparently in favour of staying, and those apparently in favour of leaving.

A list of those who have expressed support for the stay campaign includes names such as basically the entire Labour and Green parties, several former Chancellors of the Exchequer (who have actual economic experience), and...

...well I never, David Cameron.


Anyone who knows Dodgy Dave must know that leaving the EU would be a huge feather in his cap. They've been decrying his party's actions for a long time. Their troublesome clinging to the Human Rights act and their awkward tenacity for worker's rights - it's kind of counter to policy.

So why is he voting to stay, when most of the rest of his party - the NEW Tories it bears mention, not the old school like John Major - are voting to leave? Notably Theresa May, Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson?

It's simple: he knows full well he is one of the most hated men in the country, and has said himself that he won't run in the next election. He's the perfect sacrifice.

It's the only reason he would publically condone something his friends and allies - including Rupert Murdoch - actively condemn. Even more so than the people actually making the policies that are killing and disenfranchising British citizens, the country HATES David Cameron, and will - like Pavlov's dogs - instantly go against anything he stands for.

Think about it.

If we as a nation vote to stay in then it is a final victory for him, a high point for him to end his career on. "At least at the end I could stick to my principles," he may say, as he waves and leaves Downing Street. A legacy. In 20 years, when we're not looking down the barrel of yet another recession, someone might look back and stay - hey, if we weren't in the EU, we might have had some serious issues. Bravo, David Cameron. Bravo. Release biography, make millions, retire to life of consultancy.

On the other side of the coin - if we vote to leave, then his party gets what it wants. He can slip out of the door having been shown it after supporting the Stay campaign, and leave the party in the hands of one of those folks that supported Leave. He's done a solid for his chums, and they won't forget it. Bravo. Release biography, make millions, retire to life of consultancy.

He wins both ways.

He's not the only fifth column, either. I mentioned the BBC earlier? Well, with their steadily more obvious right-wing leanings and the degradation of their brand as a news service, their apparent support of Stay by scaremongering Leave is going to undermine the Stay campaign significantly.

Which is of course exactly what Rupert Murdoch - you know, the BBC's head of news' previous employer - would want. He has his hooks in our government, and they love it; the less interference from outsiders, the better. He can't make a phone call and make the EU do his bidding - but he CAN engender some scurrying around from Tory HQ.

The same Tory HQ that will be making decisions on whether or not the BBC continues to exist - a BBC that is losing support daily in part down to its news direction; that old Thatcherite trick, to undermine while miming support, to allow failure, to declare unfit for purpose, and to monetise.

I don't believe in conspiracy theories. I believe the truth is right there if you look for it. It's not hidden in a huge web of deceipt and double-talk. All this that I have just told you is fairly simple, if you just look.

If we were to ever leave the EU, then it should be when our economy is strong, and we can easily weather the temporary hit that we are guaranteed to take in doing so. Negotiate from a position of strength. Right now - we don't have that strength. We like to think that we're the strong twenty-something that can leave any time they want and be just fine (which anyone living in this country will realise is just as much a fallacy, unless you have a REALLY good job). In truth, we're the frail old man, cantankerous and stubborn. We talk about how we can leave the nursing home any time we want, back in our day we did all this, we did all that, of course we'll be fine.

We think we're Dick Whittington. We're closer to Don Quixote - and if we keep going down the path of austerity, we'll end up as Weekend At Bernies.